Tremblant and Montreal travel review: Snowboarding and urban culture combine for thrilling winter break in Quebec
Sylvain jabs me with his ski poles and orders me to straighten my feet, but within seconds they lapse into their natural wonky state.
He pokes me again, this time for lifting my feet in trying to walk rather than glide up the slope – a cardinal sin.
I’m at the Mont Tremblant ski resort in Quebec, Canada, trying my hand at ski touring, which basically means ignoring the chairlift and skiing up the hill.
It sounds hard and it is, even with special skins to give our skis grip. My skis, incidentally, clip together to form a snowboard for the eventual descent.
There are eight dedicated trails in this resort, designed to be the perfect taster.
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Sylvain, my instructor, tells me what awaits if I master the skill – epic week-long expeditions over vast distances, in remote terrain far from any lift or piste.
Master it I do not, though with his firm but good-humoured cajoling, I do eventually reach the first lift station.
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It only took two-and-a-half hours to ascend what would be minutes in the chair, but having struggled up on my own steam, the run back down was incomparable.
And that’s not the only appeal. It’s a different way of seeing the mountain and, despite the effort it takes, a more tranquil way.
I felt closer to nature as we edged up the mountain through hidden woodland paths, only metres from the slopes yet feeling as if I’d disappeared off into the wilderness. I think I’ve caught the bug.
Tremblant, in Quebec’s Laurentian mountain range, prides itself on being a feature-packed resort, with not only ski touring but countless activities like husky riding and even high stakes gambling, in what must surely be one of few ski-in ski-out casinos in the world.
But every ski resort must be judged on the basic business of whizzing downhill above all.
While not as big as some more distant resorts in the Rockies or western Canada, it is the largest in this region – and the mountain is incredibly well-planned and varied.
It’s well-stocked with easy runs and devilishly hard, almost vertical walls of snow masquerading as pistes. There are parks, features, moguls and trees galore – and the snow-blanketed woods are stunning after a fresh fall.
The village, meanwhile, is like a ski town imagined by Disney – a picturesque scene of cobbled paths, Victorian-style street lamps and quaint buildings with colourful red, green and blue roofs.
For Londoners, Tremblant is the most accessible serious option for North American skiing.
Air Canada flies from Heathrow to Montreal, a 90-minute transfer away, and rightly describes the route as a “short” long haul, taking six-and-a-half hours.
Temblant’s proximity to Montreal is surely one of its greatest assets and it would be a huge pity to visit Quebec without experiencing Montreal’s unique mix of European and North American culture.
My girlfriend, who is less of a snow junkie, was especially keen to take advantage – so we left Tremblant to spend three days in the city.
We spent much of our time simply strolling the streets, exploring the contrasting neighbourhoods that emanate out from Mont Royal, the mountain at the city’s heart which provided its name.
In the Downtown area, where we stayed, sleek modern towers rub shoulders with grand university buildings and museums.
From there, we ventured to Mile End, which feels like Montreal’s version of east London, all trendy boutiques, bars and bagel bakers, and onwards to the historic ambience of Old Montreal’s cobbled streets and 18th century stone buildings.
While French rule officially ended in Quebec in 1763, Montreal has stubbornly clung to its Gallic roots.
It has the largest French-speaking population outside Paris and the locals I met insisted that, while they were proudly North American, the European influence was alive and well in their devotion to culture, gastronomy and the good life.
As for the arrow-straight streets arranged in a grid and the huge tipping culture, well they felt unmistakably North American.
We had picked a good time to visit as the city was bursting with life from hosting its annual Montréal en Lumière festival, which was basically a celebration of everything the city stands for – good food, entertainment, culture.
We caught a few shows, including an excellent Peter Doig retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and an inventive audio-visual extravaganza at the Société des Arts Technologiques, a real highlight.
Staged in a planetarium-style room with a domed ceiling, we lay back on cushions mesmerised by the visuals dancing up above us and a lush orchestral soundtrack by US composer John Adams.
The heart of the festival was at the aptly-named Place des Festivals, a modern public square which was filled with food and drink tents, fire pits, a toboggan ride and a stage delivering an eclectic programme of free music.
We turned up on our last night and chanced upon a late-night DJ set of bass-heavy dance music. We were caught up in the heaving crowd – there’s nothing quite like subzero temperatures to get the people moving.
It was an energetic finale to a week of non-stop stimulation.
Tremblant and Montreal both have plenty to offer the winter traveller – and together they’re hard to beat.
* Tom flew with Air Canada, which has this year launched new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft on its flights from Heathrow to Montreal, introducing premium economy fares on the route. Return flights start from £522.16, including taxes. Visit aircanada.com or call 0871 220 1111.
* Mont Tremblant and Montreal packages are available from Inghams. Departing on January 7, a package includes flights, seven nights at Ermitage Hotel Tremblant, and two at the Marriott in Montreal costs £1,330 per person, based on two sharing. Visit inghams.co.uk or call 01483 345 682.
* For a wealth of information on Quebec, call Tourisme Quebec on 0800 051 7055, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.QuebecOriginal.com.